Benign Medievalisms: The Juggling the Middle Ages Exhibit at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks

Benign Medievalisms: The Juggling the Middle Ages Exhibit at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks

By Richard Utz

North American lovers of medieval culture had a rude awakening in August 2017, when they realized how “Unite the Right” demonstrators linked their nationalist, neo-Confederate, racist, violent, and masculinist goals to certain assumptions about the Middle Ages during the riots surrounding the removal of a Confederate statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. European lovers of the Middle Ages suffered a similar shock in 2011, when Anders Breivik appropriated imagined aspects of medieval culture for his murderous vision of a future society.

These kinds of medievalism are troublingly “persistent” (Angela Jane Weisl), dangerously “banal” (Andrew B.R. Elliot), and omnipresent in a manner that makes it almost impossible to perceive different notions of the Middle Ages, those not deliberately employed in the service of a radical and racist ideology.

Therefore, it comes as a relief to enter into the halls of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, DC, situated in the midst of a peaceful Georgetown neighborhood, and experience the modern reception of a medieval narrative that is quite different from the ones we tend to hear about on a daily basis. The exhibit, named Juggling the Middle Ages, is based on the comprehensive reception history created over more than a decade by Jan Ziolkowski, Harvard University’s Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Medieval Latin, and Director of Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Dumbarton Oaks, which was established by a philanthropic gift from Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss as a haven for the humanities and a bulwark against the horrors of World War II, includes historic gardens, outstanding collections for researchers in the areas of Byzantine, Pre-Columbian, and Garden and Landscape Studies, and the museum itself.

Academic work on the reception of a medieval person, artifact, or text tends to focus on a single case study, like the depiction of the West Saxon King Alfred the Great in the British TV series, The Last Kingdom (2015–). Instead of such “slices of life,” the Juggling the Middle Ages exhibit presents the rare example of an academic project that guides visitors through a complete reception history of a medieval story, from its beginnings and dozens of transformations all the way to the present. And, also unlike all too many academic projects, Ziolkowski’s research and scholarship are specifically meant to reach out to the public, a public that clearly continues to love everything medieval, as impressive audiences for medieval-themed movies, games, books, or websites indicate.

The exhibit, which will be open until February 28, 2019, is accompanied by family-focused events, musical performances, readings by children’s book authors, and several public lectures. Ziolkowski’s comprehensive six-volume, 2000-page, The Juggler of Notre Dame and the Medievalizing of Modernity, also lowers the drawbridge for broader audiences: As a true example of public scholarship, it is available via OpenBook Publishers to all those who might enjoy reading it.

During my own visit to Dumbarton Oaks and the exhibit, I was particularly impressed with how the original medieval French legend of the entertainer (“jongleur” or “ioculator”) has been adapted for modern audiences in some of the most unlikely genres. The anonymous 13th century French versions tell readers the story of a successful minstrel, whose faith directs him to leave his worldly possessions behind to join a monastery. Unfamiliar with the liturgy and unhappy with his inability to pray appropriately, he decides to pray to Virgin Mary by turning his devotion into an elaborate performance. While the other monks deem his ‘gymnastics’ improper, the statue of Virgin miraculously comes to life and rewards his unflagging faith and devotion by allowing him entry into Heaven.

Like so many medieval stories, the “juggler” narrative first fell into obscurity for almost 500 years, only to be unearthed and re-present-ed by nineteenth-century scholars and artists to meet the tastes of various history-hungry modern audiences. Once available, it quickly impressed the many French lovers of the medieval past (not without a whiff of nationalist self interest in the medieval roots of the French nation and identity in the aftermath of the painful Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, of course), inspiring Anatole France, the famous French man of letters and 1921 Nobel prize winner in Literature, to turn the medieval tale into a short story; or Jules Massenet, to produce an operatic version, Le Jongleur de Notre Dame, performed for the first time at the Opéra Garnier in Monte Carlo, in 1902.

This kind of broad cultural attention to the narrative in France soon had an impact on Anglo-American artists, writers, and entertainers, resulting, for example, in a U.S. television version associated with Fred Waring, musician, bandleader, and radio and TV personality, and the promoter and financial backer of the first electric blender (the eponymous Waring Blendor); a 1960 telefilm, The Young Juggler, by Tony Curtis (the actor of Spartacus and Some Like It Hot fame); a 1961 children’s book by Barbara Cooney, The Little Juggler (Cooney was inspired by hearing a version of the story on the radio); a 1970 operatic interpretation by poet W.H. Auden (The Ballad of Barnaby); a feature article on a staged version in Ebony magazine; and homily anecdotes, greeting cards, commemorative medallions, handmade art books, mass-market paperbacks, radio plays, TV specials around Christmas, dolls, Christmas ornaments, paintings, and sculptures all presented their version of the narrative and profited from (and in turn increased) its popularity. These numerous and fascinatingly different examples of reception leave no doubt about the wide distribution of the Juggler/jongleur narrative throughout the 20th century, and the exhibit succeeds at bringing their different modes alive by displaying them to readers and viewers.

My personal favorite from among the many low, middle, and high brow artifacts on display at Dumbarton Oaks is perhaps Otto Blechman’s The Juggler of Our Lady: A Medieval Legend (1951). In the extreme simplicity of Blechman’s design, this deceptively naive graphic novel avant la lettre seems to me to resemble what art historians have described as the “primitif” in medieval representation. In 1954, Blechman’s Juggler was made into a short animated film, narrated by Boris Karloff. Today, in the age of YouTube, it makes for a lovely electronic holiday greeting card.

Jan Ziolkowski and his collaborators at Dumbarton Oaks offer visitors of Juggling the Middle Ages a unique admission ticket to a multilayered and multimodal experience of a beautiful medieval story and its afterlife in modern times. Full of examples of benign and humane medievalism throughout, Juggling the Middle Ages is also a great testimony to the inscription on the wall facing the center’s research library: “If ever the humanities were necessary … it is in this epoch of disintegration and dislocation.” It was a sentiment philanthropist Mildred Bliss expressed in 1942, but it is perhaps just as true today.

The exhibit is on display at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection at 1703 32nd ST. NW Washington until Feb. 28, Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. .

Richard Utz is Chair and Professor in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. .